All is right with the golfing world again. It is once again spinning on its proper axis. With another impressive win at the British Open on Sunday, Tiger Woods is Tiger again: dominating the field and chasing Jack Nickalaus’s record of 18 major wins.
The golfing world was without its biggest star and its most powerful draw for over two months after Earl Woods passed away in May. Tiger — understandably grieving after the loss of his mentor, teacher, and closest friend — didn’t play golf for nine weeks. When he did return, at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, he couldn’t shake off the rust. After shooting back-to-back lackluster rounds, Tiger missed the cut in a major for the first time as a professional.
But when Tiger shot an opening-round 67 at the British Open this past Thursday, you just had the feeling that he was back to his old tricks again. With a course-record-tying 65 on Friday, there was a growing sense that once again a major was Tiger’s to lose. And how often does he do that?
Tiger went into the tournament’s final day with a slim one-shot lead — and the best players in golf breathing down his neck. The folks at ABC had to be ecstatic about the leaderboard for the final round. It was full of stars and compelling stories. Playing with Tiger was the 26-year-old Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who hits his iron shots as good as anyone in the world. A younger Garcia gave Tiger a run for his money at the PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999, but could he do it again? Tiger also found himself up against two other men who were no strangers to the challenge of trying to beat him in a major: Chris DiMarco and Ernie Els. At Augusta in 2005, DiMarco played as gutsy a round as you will ever see, only to come down in defeat after Tiger chipped in one of the greatest clutch shots in golf history.
DiMarco was no stranger to the grief Tiger was feeling this weekend: He had lost his mother to a sudden heart attack just a few weeks ago. After struggling with a back injury and some putting woes this season, DiMarco was looking for both distraction and redemption. Could he finally get that “best player without a major” monkey off his back? Could he use the memories of his mother to power him for one more round?
Partnering with DiMarco was Ernie Els, a man all too familiar with playing second fiddle. When Tiger had his dominant performance at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Ernie was his playing partner. When Mickelson finally won a major at Augusta, Els was the man he beat. When two years ago Ben Curtis shocked the world by winning the British Open, Els was the one to lose in a playoff. Seeking to find his game after a knee injury, would he be able to finally put it together on Sunday and put all those what-might-have-beens behind him?
In a word, no. All of the above scenarios were not to be, because Tiger was Tiger. Throughout the week Tiger had kept the driver in the bag and instead focused on his long irons. On Sunday, to use a sports cliché, he put on a clinic. Using only his three-wood and his irons, Tiger just kept hitting fairways and greens. Those unfamiliar with golf might have been bored with the process. It was meticulous and almost boring in its efficiency. But, as anyone who has played the game can attest, it was a lot harder than it looked, especially given that it was Sunday at the Open Championship. Tiger once again had that icy glare and that look of steely confidence that just screams, “I am in complete control.”
The only time Tiger seemed flustered was when the spectators insisted on taking pictures with their cell phone cameras. It went from small distraction to major nuisance. It finally caught up to him on the twelfth hole where he missed the fairway and missed a makeable putt for his only bogey of the day.
Not surprisingly, the man who put pressure on Tiger was the ever-gutsy DiMarco. With birdies on holes ten and thirteen and Tiger’s bogey on twelve, the lead was down to one. But DiMarco got into trouble on fourteen and had a long par putt. But he responded expertly, sinking the 50-foot bomb to save par.
Tiger’s response? He birdied the next three holes. With laser-like irons and dead-eye putting, Tiger regained control of the tournament and put it away. DiMarco never gave up and birdied the last two par fives (sixteen and eighteen), but Tiger was all but untouchable by that point
Holding his nerves and emotions steady, Tiger held on for a two-stroke victory. He raised his arms in triumph and screamed out to the crowd. And what a jumble of emotions he must have been feeling: excitement and pride, but also relief and sadness. A few steps later it all caught up with him, as he embraced his caddy Steve Williams and cried. You could see the emotion as Tiger’s shoulders shook and the tears streamed down his face. He then repeated this outpouring with this wife Elin. Usually we get to see Tiger’s human side only when he fails to live up to his unparalleled talent. When he loses his cool or when he comes up short we say: “Oh, he is human after all.” But on Sunday we got to see both the dominant fierce competitor and the human being. It was touching and reassuring.
At the award ceremony Tiger had regained control of his emotions and was once again flashing his big smile and savoring his victory. Yes, all was right with the world. Tiger Woods was once again clearly the best in the world and being mentioned among the best of all time. Great players would make their charges and give it their best, but only one man would be left standing.
For a few hours on Sunday Tiger Woods and Chris DiMarco reminded us of why we watch sports. They honored their parents with their play and their class. And the golf world is the better for it.